Monday, April 17, 2017

A Noteworthy Boheme at Opera San Jose

Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline (Kirk Dougherty, Matthew Hanscom,
Brian James Myer and Colin Ramsey). All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Puccini's La Boheme
April 15, 2017

Opera San Jose has produced a superb La Boheme. That being said, and this being my 123rd review of this opera (perhaps I exaggerate), I thought I would work directly from my notes.

Act I
paintings! – Gauguin (Rousseau?)
            This is a Marcello with ambition! His paintings are enormous: a Red Sea epic (referred to in the libretto) and a tropical-looking work resembling the work of the two painters above (Lori Scheper-Kesel, prop master).

“I am doggone cold!” – Marcello
            This supertitle has general director Larry Hancock’s wit all over it.

blind Colline
            An interesting choice, with a couple “sight gags” to it, but given the philosopher’s love of books, the questions arise: Are they Braille? Does someone read to him? Ramsey’s bass-baritone, as usual, is elegant, and the sunglasses add a nice hipsterish quality.

Schaunard – velvet (parrot story)
            Brian James Myer’s baritone is a joy to listen to, and he plays the musician Schaunard with a smooth joie de vivre, particularly when relating the demise of the pooped Polly. Is there some secret mother lode of male voices that OSJ is mining? Because… damn!

ADD pace of opening scene
            Puccini’s first act is lightning-paced, an asset certainly helped by stage director Michael Shell and the Garret Boys, who sometimes resemble the Marx Bros. The comedy, which provides such a lovely framework for the later tragedy, is an underrated element of the opera. The grilling of landlord Benoit (Carl King) is brilliant.

How does he finish an article for The Beaver in five minutes?
            Further proof that Rodolfo is a big fat poser. Predictably, he gets writer’s block. (If only some woman would knock at the door.)

bathtub desk
            Another score for the propmaster, this one triples as a rowboat.

key-hide good
            A tasty little piece of comedy, Rodolfo pocketing Mimi’s housekey in the hopes of keeping her around for a while. Well done.

mask production, Kirk, resume song
            The resume song is “Che gelida manina,” and most guys do this on a first meeting: here’s who I am, here’s what I do (“sonno poeto”), and I’d love it if you would hire me as your boyfriend. But what’s up with Kirk Dougherty’s voice? He’s been pretty spinto since he arrived in 2014, and pleasantly so, but here his voice trends lyric in spectacular fashion, his top notes filling the hall with ringing sound. The source seems to be a focus on the mask, using the sinal cavity as a resonating chamber (a la Sgr. Pavarotti), which you can see by noting how his mouth stays somewhat small (and often smiling), even on higher notes.

“The first kiss of April is mine” (rise)
            “Mi chiamano Mimi” turns a lovely modal shift at the appearance of spring, and climbs into this beautiful line, referring to Mimi’s position at the top of the building. A gorgeous image.

Mimi – high note at end
            As Mimi and Rodolfo sing the final line of “O soave fanciulla” from outside the garret, the soprano is supposed to take the higher note, with the tenor supplying a lower harmony. Tenors being tenors, this doesn’t often happen. So bravo, Dougherty, for letting the lady have her glory.

Vanessa Becerra (Musetta) and Matthew Hanscom (Marcello).
Act II
Set applause!
            Kim A. Tolman’s Café Momus, heavy on the trompe l’oeil, is immaculate and lovely, inspiring one of those only-in-opera ovations for inanimate objects.

            The shift to a WWI time-setting allowed designer Alina Bokovikova a whole new palette of colors, and she took due advantage, filling the stage with lively fabrics. The gent in the top hat and purple coat resembled Willie Wonka. Parpignol (Yungbae Yang) appeared as half-harlequin, half-Pierrot. But Musetta’s green coat took top honors. The stage direction in the scene was also superb, creating an ever-lively scene.

mocking Rodolfo’s poetry
            The fratboys make appropriately irreverent faces as Rodolfo waxes sappy about his (half-hour old) romance. Love it.

Sultry waltz, Mimi’s cross-melody
            Soprano Vanessa Becerra and conductor Joseph Marcheso took Musetta’s Waltz at a sultry pace, accentuating the sexiness and utterly pulling it off. It also seemed to being out the cross lines that Mimi sings from her table, which are beautiful additions.

Marcello, while Musetta is ridding herself of old man, rehearsing conversations
            Baritone Matthew Hanscom, who just has “it” when it comes to stage presence, spent much of the Waltz in the doorway of the Café, practicing conversations with Musetta. It was a beautiful bit of background acting (with an assist to director Shell), and revealed the passion that Marcello still held for his off-and-on lover, despite his bitter protestations.

Matthew Hanscom (Marcello) and Sylvia Lee (Mimi).
Spooky tree limbs
            An effective addition from set designer Tolman, a third of a treetop looming over the gates.

music in found songs – workers at the gate
            Using the calls of the workers is an intriguing Puccinian device, and foretells Tosca, in which overheard cantatas, church masses and shepherd’s songs are drafted into the score.

resonation – Mimi’s top notes
            Sylvia Lee’s soprano doesn’t shine as much as it did in last fall’s Lucia di Lammermoor (she’s singing Mimi a bit more darkly), but her top notes have this remarkable way of expanding and filling the hall like fairy dust. It’s an extraordinary effect.

wingman-girlfriend element
            There’s something very touching about the conversation between Mimi and Marcello. Being in love with someone’s best friend allows you to tell them things you could tell no one else.

Marcello – presence
            As mentioned earlier, but evident especially in this scene, given the size difference with the petite Lee.

talking about someone’s impending death in front of them
            A fascinating scenario, as set up by Puccini and his librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

“Because of me, this disease will kill her.” – Rodolfo
            This note has a personal aspect. As an author, I realize that I lead a tough life, and that not everyone can come along with me. With Rodolfo, his poverty, combined with his love for a woman with failing health, puts him in quite an emotional vise.

Kirk Dougherty (Rodolfo) and Sylvia Lee (Mimi).
Act IV
            The scene opens with Marcello applying this white primer to his canvas, which is what an artist quite literally does when he wants a clean slate.

Schaunard’s got some moves!
            I suspect Brian James Myer has had some dance classes. Nice fandango!

frat party! flying papers
            The goofiness that precedes Mimi’s ominous appearance is well-done, including the answer to the question, How does one conduct a duel with a blind man? (The answer: wrassling.) The tossing of Rodolfo’s manuscript pages is a fun, confetti-ish effect, and also leaves Mimi to die over a sea of Rodolfo’s words.

K & S – chemistry
            This is always somewhat inexplicable, but Dougherty and Lee simply look good together, and interact well. Lee has the advantage of a small frame, which allows her to portray Mimi’s frailty. It would be interesting to see how this plays out with the alternate Mimi, Julie Adams, who is both taller and larger of voice.

Through April 30, California Theater, 345 South First St, San Jose., 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 19 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice. He has been reviewing opera since 1983. Operaville was recently named the 8th-ranked opera blog in the world.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Opera San Jose's Silent Night

Ricardo Rivera as Audebert, Brian James Myer as Ponchel.
All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Puts and Campbell’s Silent Night
February 11, 2017

One hears the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 so often that it’s tempting to suspect a little mythologizing, perhaps wishful thinking. But no, the smallest bit of research reveals that not only did mortal enemies meet in No Man’s Land to exchange tidings and small gifts that winter, it happened at dozens of points along the front. Working from the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, librettist Mark Campbell and and composer Kevin Puts did a masterful job of distilling those stories into three squadrons – Scots, French and German – and creating a moving, personal account of that astounding night. For their effort, they won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

After arranging for the composer to create a custom score for its 47-person pit, Opera San Jose has put on perhaps its most ambitious project ever. The opening battle scenes are at once visceral and chaotic, a sort of combat ballet by fight director Kit Wilder, made all the more jarring by the archival projections from set designer Steven Kemp. Puts’ swarming strings are like a Stravinskian film score, echoed later (in a lighter tone) in the cocktail-party chatter of the Christmas party.

Ricardo Rivera as Audebert, Matthew Hanscom as Lt. Gordon, Kyle
Albertson as Lt. Hortsmayer.
Post-battle, the opera’s ambition is to make things personal, and they start at a very primal place: sleep. Playing French lieutenant Audebert, baritone Ricardo Rivera displays a natural ability to project world-weariness, and a compassion for his men that is, at times, detrimental to his military assignments. He sings of a desire for a good night’s sleep, in a passage that teases at lyricism (modern-opera listeners are always a little thirsty for melody), then suddenly opens up to a lush chorus from every single man on the darkened battlefield. This attempt to sing themselves to sleep, along with their words (“Maybe when I wake, all will have changed”), provides a hint at the upcoming unity of enemies. (Chorus director Andrew Whitfield.)

The stories then turn personal. Baritone Brian James Myer brings a little light to the scene as an upbeat French barber, Ponchel, singing of his home, an hour’s walk from the battlefield, where he longs to go and have coffee with his mother. Tenor Mason Gates plays Jonathan, a Scots soldier whose brother’s death leads him into a downward spiral of denial and vengeance. His eventual insanity leaves him as the only “effective” soldier left. Bass-baritone Kyle Albertson plays German Lt. Horstmayer, driven to be fierce and flawless to make up for his unfortunate Jewishness.

Julie Adams as Anna Sorenson.
The moral driver is (conveniently enough), an opera singer. Kirk Dougherty plays divo-soldier Nikolaus Sprink, singing his spinto protests against a terrible, pointless war with the kind of artistic passion that drives military folks crazy (“Artists make bad soldiers,” says his lieutenant). Preparing for a command performance before the Kronprinz with his singing partner/lover Anna, he refers to “all these fat old men, swigging their champagne,” the true beneficiaries of the bloodshed. Anna manages to talk him into taking her to the front for Christmas eve, and thus are the seeds planted for a rebellious truce. The Germans have Christmas trees, the French have chocolate, the Scots have whiskey. And the tenor arrives with an actual angel.

Many of those dozens of Christmas truces were initiated through music, bits of carols and folks songs drifting across No Man’s Land. Puts begins with the bagpipes (played by Lettie Smith), duly matched by harmonica (Isaiah Musik-Ayala), German songs, and Latin hymns, as Ponchel provides a running commentary. Puts’ setting is fully natural, and allows the opening for Sprink to step bravely onto the battlefield and propose a Christmas peace.

The truce is everything you might imagine, a few tense, darkly humorous moments (Ponchel almost gunned down for drawing a chocolate bar from his pocket), and a great sense of relief at the removal of danger. Followed by a religious gathering (bass-baritone Colin Ramsey as the Scots’ Father Palmer) and a soprano benediction. Julie Adams, an Adler Fellow set to play Mimi in San Francisco Opera’s upcoming La Bohème, is quite the find, a dramatic soprano who can nonetheless play lyric, drawing heartbreaking pianissimos from the top of the range. Her Anna gives the production a female moral presence very much on everyone’s minds (given recent marches and such).

Mason Gates as Jonathan Dale.
This production also demonstrates OSJ’s ability to throw some impressive male firepower at a challenging project. One of the company’s most-acclaimed alums, tenor Christopher Bengochea, appears as the Kronprinz for fairly brief scenes, but lends the role a valuable authority. Baritone Matthew Hanscom as the garrulous Scot Lieutenant Gordon, bass Kirk Eichelberger as the German Officer, bass Nathan Stark as the fierce French General – all of them have played and will play leads in other productions.

To their credit, Puts and Campbell don’t leave it at that glorious Christmas. They proceed to the unsettling ramifications: the burying of the dead, the ludicrous thought of having to shoot at people they now know, angry superiors upbraiding underlings for treating enemy soldiers as if they were human beings. (Which brings up another recent topic: demonization.) A particularly moving scene leaves Father Palmer singing the hymn of Saint Francis as the impending return of violence plays beneath him in dissonant waves of strings. Nothing about this opera is easy, and that is wholly appropriate. It will leave you thinking a lot about the violence we do in the name of other-ness. And the pivotal role of The War to End All Wars in introducing the bloodiest century ever.

Kemp’s rollaway bunkers allow a filmic continuity, providing quick shifts from one faction to another. Joseph Marcheso forgot to bring his score to the podium (a good laugh for the audience), but proceeded to do a magnificent job of coordinating a small army of performers. (You could the same about stage director Michael Shell.) Some of the work’s success comes from modern opera’s supertitle culture, which provides an audience ready-made to take in a story sung in Italian, French, English, German and Latin. The presence of xylophone and piano in the first act give the sense of approaching magic (also the occasional snowfall). The horn passages on Christmas eve mornings are sumptuous. I also enjoyed the device of lining up several characters to deliver a fugue of information: soldiers’ concerns, leaders’ complaints, and especially soldiers reading descriptions of the magical truce from their letters.

Through February 26, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose., 408/437-4450.

Operaville was recently named the eighth-best opera blog/website in the world by Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic and the author of 19 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice. (Photo by Janine Watson.)

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Renee Fleming, Pop Star

Photo by Andrew Eccles
As a jazz singer/rock drummer/opera critic, I have never liked the crossover attempts by opera superstars. The pop songs come out overblown and sappy (I'm talking to you, Domingo), and the jazz... well, let's just say that opera singers think of swing as that thing you sit on in the playground. I didn't expect much better when, scouring a clearance rack at a used CD store, I discovered a 2010 album, Dark Hope, by Renee Fleming.

Two tracks in, I had to check to see if there hadn't been some kind of switch. The sound I was hearing was not an opera singer at all, more of a troubador, singer/songwriter type, a little bit of Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant, Norah Jones. The range was alto, and the style was gorgeously understated. Also, the songs were amazingly cool. (You know, for an opera singer.)

From the liner notes, I learned that some folks at Universal Music thought it would be a fun idea to match up a classically trained voice with songs from indie rock bands. Switching from the unamplified projection of the opera stage to the uber-sensitive recording studio, Fleming decided to go to the "other side" entirely. "We quickly discovered that I should sing this music in the range I speak in," she wrote, "often two octaves lower than I generally sing, in order to allow for a more authentic sound."

The results are beautifully intimate, blessed with the surety and deft phrasing that come from decades of opera. Fleming finds her best results when she goes dark (appropriately enough), especially with The Mars Volta's "With Twilight as my Guide," backed with haunting, vinegar peals of electric guitar, and offering the chance for a little more dynamic range than the other tracks.  With Gary Jules' increasingly revered "Mad World," producer David Kahne ups the creepiness with whistling sounds, bits of accordion and sudden cuts and interjections. I also enjoyed "Soul Meets Body," if only for the geeky wonder of a world-class diva singing a song by Death Cab for Cutie. Kahne uses strings for many of the tracks, providing a sort of aural bridge between the genres.

The only misses came from a little bit too much reverence. Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" sounds as exact as a karaoke version. And despite its hallowed lyrics and gorgeous melody, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is highly repetitive, and needs a little more improvisational play than it gets here. But then again, think of the criticism I'm making there: an opera singer is undersinging.

I apologize to Ms. Fleming and all involved for missing this by a mere six years. Now I'm going back to that clearance rack and see if I can find that reggae album by Bryn Terfel.

Find Dark Hope on

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and the author of 19 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella's Voice. (Photo by Janine Watson.)